Of When We Tailed Behind Sharmila Gowri Shankar To Hear Rescue Tales Of King Cobras
- IWB Post
- December 20, 2017
If you’ve ever talked about India anywhere outside or seen it on a channel like Animal Planet, most of the representation India gets is through its exotic species of cobras. For us, cobras seem to be something almost mystical since cities push them far into the patches of jungles.
For Sharmila Gowri Shankar and her husband P. Gowri Shankar, their passion for snakes, especially for the deadly cobras, has led them to create Kalinga Foundation and KCRE (Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology).
This is her story of how she set about to rescue the deadly King Cobra.
When was the first time you laid your eyes on a real-life cobra?
The first time I saw a common cobra up close and got a chance to touch it, was also the first time I met Gowri Shankar (my future husband). He was attending a rescue call and I had accompanied him. As for a king cobra, I saw it again during a rescue in Agumbe, when Gowri captured it.
What inspired you to take up the initiative of saving this species, mainly?
Snakes always fascinated me, and I had longed to learn more about them since my school days. Meeting Gowri helped me understand their role in the eco-system. I realized how our fear of snakes makes us behave so unjustly towards them. I heard the saying, ‘Knowledge is the only antidote to fear’ and since then we have been working towards creating awareness and doing all we can to change this attitude and garner support to conserve them.
How can we join this noble mission?
As part of KCRE, we conceptualized a unique program called STORM-Scientific Training on Reptile Management, which is a bi-module workshop to teach people about ethical and right methods of rescue and relocation of snakes and also help interested participants to go beyond rescue and learn research methodologies adopted in studying them. We also do an annual King cobra bionomics and conservation workshop which helps people understand these species better.
What are the common misconceptions around cobras?
There are several myths which unfortunately overshadow the facts when it comes to the Common cobra (Naja naja). Among the top are:
- Cobras take revenge (Truth: They have a very small brain which only helps them think about their basic needs i.e. eating, sleeping, and breeding)
- Cobras drink milk (Truth: Milk is not naturally available to a snake in the wild. But people may report that a snake charmer’s snake did drink milk. This happens because the charmer would not feed the snake or offer any water to it for weeks, so when milk is offered the snake just drinks whatever it is given.)
- Cobras and rat snakes mate together. (Truth: Both are different species and they mate with their own species.)
What was the funniest thing you heard people say about the snakes?
The funniest would be the myth that Cobras take photographs with their hoods spread out and tend to remember you for many years.
You have rescued many Cobras over the years – tell us about that one rescue mission that proved to be rather challenging.
I have been on several king cobra rescues with my husband in Agumbe. One story I clearly remember was a rescue in 2010 where my husband had to go down into a well to rescue a female king cobra during the breeding season. The Cobra and my husband were both just 3 feet away from each other!
That must have been a scary moment.
Yes, one mistake and it could have sunk his fangs into him!
So in all the rescue missions, did you ever get bitten?
I haven’t got bitten. My husband has been bitten once by a common cobra and once by a king cobra. He rushed to the hospital as early as possible and took anti-venom for the common cobra bite. When he was bitten by the king cobra, I was immensely worried as there is no anti-venom available in India.
So how was he saved? (I interrupt nervously)
Much to his luck, it was a dry bite meaning the snake had not injected enough venom to kill my husband.
You and your husband started this initiative, how is your family involved in the entire project?
As a college student, I had once told my dad that I wanted to buy a piece of land and convert it back into a forest. He had promised me that if I did well in my studies, he would make that dream true. Years later he kept his word by helping us buy the piece of land that KCRE is now and I have kept mine. Similarly, everyone in Gowri’s home knew he was happiest in the forest and so they did their best to help him achieve his dreams. Parents and our extended families have played a huge role in what we are today.
What were your struggles in the initial stages?
Challenges had become the other name to our lives when we started off on this journey. I had quit my job at Microsoft, my husband had quit his previous job to pursue his Ph.D. and above all, I had just then conceived my first child. We initially survived on our savings and saw our bank balances dwindle in no time. For the first time in my life, I had to think twice to even withdraw Rs.500 from our accounts. While I shuttled between my laptop creating workshop plans, answering emails, worked on education materials, home, and my child, my husband shuttled between his Ph.D. classes and conducting workshops during weekends. But we never compromised either on our dreams, vision, or quality; our families and friends played a big role in holding the roof above our head and supporting us in a million ways.
How do you manage to be financially independent, now?
This was the sole reason for starting the for-profit organization, KCRE. The funds generated through camps and workshops are diverted to our conservation efforts as part of Kalinga Foundation. Kalinga Foundation is also supported by donors who believe in our work.
Tell me, what was the weirdest place you rescued a cobra from?
It is amazing to note the places that king cobras decide to take refuge in. Bathrooms, rooftops, attics, under car bonnets, wells, under shoe racks, etc. The weirdest must be the dashboard of a truck.
So where do you keep these rescued snakes? Is there sanctuary or something? Do you allow visitors or tourists inside the place?
King cobras are rescued in the presence of a forest department official and soon after they are released. We do not keep them.
People are of course welcome to visit us at Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology where we share our knowledge about king cobras and other snakes.
So what would you advise if someone saw a cobra in their house? How should they react so as to not hurt them?
Here is what we say when people spot snakes in their homes:
Do not panic.
Do not touch, prod or catch the snake.
Do not block its escape route.
Do not stress the snake by crowding around it.
Do not try to kill the snake.
Clear people from the vicinity of the snake.
Allow it to find its way out by itself.
If settled inside a room, isolate the snake by carefully closing the doors and windows from outside.
From a safe distance, try to note color, markings and any features of the snake for identification.
Call the nearest snake rescuer.
And, how to avoid the human-animal conflicts?
Human-snake conflict is certainly on the rise, especially in urban and semi-urban areas with villas, townships, and apartments sprouting everywhere and stretching the boundaries of cities.
Sujan from our team has devised a very clever and unique strategy to combat this when it comes to human-snake conflict. It is called the 3D approach, which simply means Deny food, Deny shelter, and Deny access. Snakes prey on rats and rats are found in people’s home as they find food and shelter. So we need to stop breeding rats by being careful of our waste disposal methods and also ensure we don’t offer safe hiding places for rats or snakes for them to take shelter. These simple things will go a long way in preventing conflicts with snakes.
As part of our initiative to mitigate human-snake conflict, we have been doing a program called, ‘Snakes in our neighborhood’ where we help in assessing the campus, creating awareness by running a workshop for residents, running regular maintenance checkups, mock drills and equipping the campus with necessary readiness tools and protocols.
What kind of awareness is needed to save the species of King cobra? And how are you trying to bring it about?
The major threat this snake faces is habitat destruction followed by intolerance by people where they kill them on sight. Poaching is practiced in certain areas for meat, skin, and pet trade. We need people to take more pride in the wide variety of animals our country has. The king cobra is an apex predator and that makes it a flagship species in the herpetofaunal world. Which means if the king cobra is protected, its habitat, other snakes and in turn the prey base of other snakes are all protected.
We are trying to get more people to learn about them, become aware, prevent killing, find other ways to help mitigate human snake conflicts and most of all take pride and become a conserver than eliminator.
We heard that KCRE has an internship program? What would one learn through it?
We run two different organizations. KCRE is an environmental education organization and Kalinga Foundation is the non-profit wing where we focus on research and field studies. The internship program is part of Kalinga Foundation where we welcome students and interested individuals to gain experience in field biology.
During the course of their fieldwork and research, we link them with experts from respective fields and help guide them in their work. They are required to report regularly on the progress, submit a final report with findings, conclusions and future work prospects on the topic. We charge a nominal amount towards covering food and accommodation and this varies based on the duration and quality of work.
You have infinite knowledge when it comes to cobras; tell us some unknown amazing facts about them!
- King cobras are the longest venomous snakes in the world (15 ft in India, 18ft in Thailand)
- They are the only snakes in the world known to build a nest to lay eggs and protect them. However, they leave the nest just before the eggs hatch.
- These snakes are cannibalistic in nature.
- Though the toxicity of their venom is much less than a common cobra’s venom, the sheer quantity (4-6 ml ) they inject in a single bite makes it deadly and can kill a fully grown elephant.
There are tribes who earn their living as snake charmers, how do you deal with them?
My husband has tried educating snake charmers but traditional knowledge and belief are so strong, they rarely welcome new perspectives. Now due to pressure from animal welfare organizations, this practice is slowly disappearing and the future generations are taking to other jobs.
Other stories of their wonderful initiative and tales of their daring rescues can be read on their blog.